Ecology and Equity – An Interview with Rob Nixon

Rob Nixon decorative image
Mikhail Moosa

In a world that favors data, what value do the arts and humanities hold 


This question animates Rob Nixon’s approach to environmental justice in his upcoming Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Ecology and Equity: Environmental Justice Revisited. These lectures—organized by the Whitney Humanities Center, in coordination with President Saloveyexamine science through the lens of environmental justice and the humanities, offering new ways to consider popular ideas of nature and our place in it. 


Nixon, the Thomas A. and Currie C. Barron Family Professor in Humanities and the Environment at Princeton University, is the author of four books on postcolonial literature and environmental humanities. His 2011 book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor won the American Book Award and remains a fundamental text in environmental literary studies. 


Ahead of the Tanner Lectures on Wednesday, April 3 and Thursday, April 4, Nixon and I spoke over Zoom about the centrality of violence in his thinking on environmental justice, his attempt to historicize nature as suffused with structures and histories of power, and the twin rise of environmental science and neoliberalism. 


Mikhail Moosa 

In the environmental humanities, Slow Violence has taken on something of a canonical form. To what extent do you think violence remains a central category to your thinking on environmental justice? 

Violence remains at the front and center of my thinking. My new project focuses on environmental martyrs, individuals who are targeted for assassination for their environmental activism. This phenomenon is most pronounced in forest struggles around the tropics. Martyrs experience the immediate brutality of their individual experience, yet they are acutely aware of the slow violence of environmental degradation.  


The idea of slow violence has long been operative in my thinking on environmental justice. I first became interested in the natural world as a child when I developed a passion for ornithology. Growing up in the Eastern Cape of South Africa [a largely rural area], I became aware of the inequity of the outdoors under apartheid. I left South Africa, as a conscientious objector, for graduate school in the US. Studying under Edward Said at Columbia, I observed a scholar working across different platforms, reformulating his arguments to reach different audiences.  


My interest in environmental issues was reignited and radicalized by Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian writer and activist who was executed for his opposition to oil extraction. He was the first writer that I was aware of to use the term ecocide. Prior to his activism, I thought of environmentalism as a movement tainted by green imperialism, dominated by a logic of conservation—an anti-human environmentalism. Saro-Wiwa helped reconcile my interest in postcolonialism with my earlier emotional memories of engaging in the natural world. 


Your first lecture, Environmental Justice and the Great Outdoors,” speaks to the emergence of the green dividend and issues of unequal access. Can we think of the relationship between society and nature as one where nature does not exist solely for human benefit?  

This lecture is an attempt at historicizing nature not as a realm apart from society, but one that is suffused with structures and histories of power. It emerges from the rise of environmental neuroscience over the last two decades. Scientists have developed metrics to show that a deeper relationship with the natural world can improve health and longevity, but these are largely premised on a universal human subject coded as white, cis male. The language they use to describe these relationships is rationalized and places a premium on solitude as the paramount experience of nature: the most rapturous encounters with nature are those experienced alone.  


Historicizing this relationship involves focusing on histories of exclusion and how they develop cultures of nature where communities have specific anxieties about place and nature. We can consider the rising prominence of collectivizing as a response to individualized environmental spaces.


Your second lecture, Neoliberalism and the Science of Plant Cooperation, speaks to the emergence of popular texts that center ecology and a redefinition of human-nature interactions. Aside from the imperatives of climate change, what should we make of authors and readers turning to discussions of nature so much recently? 

Both lectures engage a three-sided approach between justice, humanities, and a scientific field: neuroscience in the first and forest ecology in the second My primary interest is the rise of environmental science along with the ascendency of neoliberalism. As social networks of care have eroded in favor of individualized notions of success, the ideology of isolationism, centering the individual as the primary unit, has affected conceptions of the environment. We can understand the recent emergence of popular texts as a response to large swathes of society who feel that the relationship between individualism and cooperation is off-balance. 


How do you envision these two lectures working together and what does environmental justice reveal about changes in human values?  

The common ground between the two lectures is the interface between environmental humanities and justice. Each engages with science and quantitative research from the perspective of the humanities. I’m interested in asking the question: what is the status and valuein a world that privileges dataof cultural forms in the form of the arts and humanities? I approach this question through environmental fields.  


I’m encouraged that environmental justice is so much more central in popular discourse, even compared to a decade ago. Poorer communities in the Global North and especially in the Global South are being recognized and celebrated for their deep traditions of environmental justice. There’s greater interest in how these communities engage collectively. For a long time, such traditions were trivialized or discounted. Environmentalists were too preoccupied with wilderness and megafauna. We lacked an understanding that we recognize today: the human presence is not inherently antagonistic.

Mikhail Moosa is a Ph.D. student in History focused on social, intellectual, and environmental histories of Africa. His research explores the social history of energy and urbanization in twentieth-century Johannesburg.